Overcoming Obstacles With a Furry Friend
In poker, they say you forget all the lucky hands you won but will always have a crystal-clear memory of the times you got extremely unlucky and lost big. The same seems to hold true for any obstacles or fears you overcome throughout your life. Because I don’t remember all the tv shows I’ve watched, the games I’ve played, or all the meals together with loved ones… but I do remember my fears.
I was raised in a sheltered middle-class Asian-American home. My father was Chinese, but more American than most men I’ve ever met in my life. He hunted, fished, and was a consummate businessman. My mother was Filipino and came to America at the age of 12 without speaking a lick of English. Both had very difficult childhoods and were determined to make mine not as difficult.
So, by the age of 11 there were really only two things I was very scared of: animals, and my own body.
The fear of how I looked came when I was around 5 years old and stuck with me until around high school. I was one of the few Asian kids in my elementary school and my best friend was half Japanese who happened to be the thinnest and smallest boy in class. With us often sitting or standing next to one another, I was always the chubby one.
Over time, I eventually conquered this fear, though nothing really ever changed except my expectations for myself and my body. I had faced one of life’s many cruel realities and survived on my own. But for my second fear, I needed help. I needed her.
My fear of animals came from playing baseball during recess in elementary school. The school playground had no fences and any hard-hit balls would enter into stranger’s backyards. As fate would have it, almost every one of those yards featured a large dog brooding inside a dark and ominous doghouse.
The scariest one was in left field. A Doberman named Jake who always seemed particularly bothered whenever a frightened young boy was tasked to retrieve a ball from anywhere near his territory.
Years later,(oddly enough, the same year I met Soffy) a movie called The Sandlot came out which had a famous scene of young boys retrieving baseballs while running away from a large menacing dog. Watching that movie with my family and friends had only reinforced my fearful belief that all dogs were a terror to young aspiring ballplayers across the nation.
November 20th, 1993
I carried my fear of dogs with me until winter had finally come. Baseball season was coming to a close and now I faced a new challenge: boredom.
It was a cold November evening at the mall and I was bored out of my mind. My two older sisters had shopped until they were finally ready to drop, and decided to check out the pet store until my mother had expended all of her shopping energy for the night. As for me, I just wandered around the fish tanks for a while, until my sisters saw me and dragged me over to the cats and dogs section. What happened next changed my life.
While the store had plenty of puppies and kittens to choose from, there was one very special puppy in the litter – A West-Highland White Terrier born on June 6th, 1993. This five-month-old white fluffy puffball would not stop staring at me with her playful button-black eyes.
Now by that age, I had seen a lot of different dog’s eyes looking directly at me. Often while I frantically searched for a baseball through tallgrass and weeds. And I had also seen many sets of them in my nightmares. Especially Jake’s… But these doggy eyes were completely different.
My sisters chatted on and on about this dog being so adorable, or that dog being so cute. But there was only one puppy who kept staring right into my eyes with such an adorable, innocent, and playful look that I couldn’t help but notice.
No one knew it yet, not even the puppy herself, but her name was Soffy(I had no idea how to spell “Sophie” as a child, so I officially registered her name with two f’s and a y instead of a “phie.” My family loved it. I was slightly embarrassed by it. But in the end, it made her that much more unique.)
However, this isn’t a story as simple as puppy love at first sight. Nothing would come from that initial meeting until the car ride home.
As my mother drove us in our light blue van through the cold Seattle fog, my sisters began to recap the details of the day. I half-listened while staring out the window, pondering which Super Nintendo game to play first when we returned home. But when they came to the part of what happened at the pet store, they mentioned how surprised they were that I actually liked one of the animals there. I took that as my cue to speak out about my feelings on the matter.
“Mom, I want that dog.” I said softly.
They all laughed at that. I was the youngest in the family and was known to let loose with my feelings recklessly. They all thought I was just being a silly kid again. Perhaps they thought I was just joking to shut them all up or move on to another topic.
“I mean it!” I barked out loudly, adding a foot stomp for emphasis.
My sisters were shocked enough to stop laughing, but not enough to wipe impish grins off their faces. They weren’t sure if their baby brother was finally growing up, or if he was throwing one of his famous temper tantrums.
“Brian, you are scared of dogs!” My Mom said.
“I don’t care. I want that dog.”
“But it’s over $500. We can’t afford it.”
“I’ll save up all my Christmas’ and Birthday gift money if I have to!” I pleaded.
These negotiations went on throughout the night. But by the end of dinner, we had finally reached a breaking point. My mother began taking my pleas seriously, and had relented that this was actually a possibility for our family.
“If we get this dog. You are responsible for her,” she said. “You have to train her, take care of her, walk her. Everything.“
I hadn’t thought of that.
Then again, $500 was more than I’d ever seen in my young life, so it seemed like a fair enough deal… But I still wasn’t sure if I was truly ready to face my fear just yet.
“Some of you will help, right?”
Her eyes turned ice-cold in response to that, and I immediately regretted showing any uncertainty or weakness. But after a long terrifying stare-down of silence, her eyes softened once more and she answered with the love only a mother can give to her youngest child grasping at straws.
“When we can. But most of the time it will just be up to you and you alone. Do you still want the dog?”
A few days later the moment of truth had arrived. My parents had bickered and budgeted enough to welcome a new member into our family, and we were all set to buy my Soffy. But my mother was still not fully convinced.
“If you can’t pick her up, we will not buy this dog.” she said to me, as we eased into the mall’s parking lot.
“If you can’t pick her up, there’s no way you will be able to train her or take care of her.”
We got to the pet store and the store clerk took us back to the petting room, where my next trial awaited me.
My mother and sisters then began chatting with the store clerk about the history of the puffball prancing around the room. They checked how old she was, whether she had all her shots, where she came from, etc… Meanwhile, I kept silent and watched Soffy’s every move, steeling myself for a task I never thought I’d ever want to do.
Soffy seemed to notice that I was the only one still paying attention to her, so she began hopping around in a 2-by-2 gallop, continually circling my feet. Eventually, she realized I was not going to move a single inch, so she dropped down and began playing with my longest hanging shoelace. I half-jumped when she latched onto my shoes, and as I tried to walk away from her, she held on tight, with all four of her paws and her whole belly gliding across the smooth tiles of the petting room floor.
My mother and sisters stopped to look at what was going on, and couldn’t help but laugh at my uncomfortable situation. I felt humiliated, but just kept walking along until my sisters decided to pull Soffy away and began playing with her.
Finally, my mother turned to me and said “Okay, we can get her. But you have to pick her up.”
I gulped hard and took a deep breath then waited for the right moment. The moment arrived when I saw her sitting and staring up at one of my sisters, seemingly waiting for her next round of playtime. Now was my chance.
I rushed up from behind the little furball and quickly hooked both thumbs onto the scruff of her back, wrapping my other eight digits around her chest. As calmly as I could muster, I lifted her off the ground and held her out at full arms-length, displaying her like she was a baby Simba for all to see. Then, as quickly as I could, placed her gently back down where she was before.
“There. Can I have her now?”
My sisters couldn’t help but smile broadly and giggle at my surprising, yet awkward-looking, act of courage.
Shortly after I released my grip on Soffy, she immediately turned around and grabbed onto my shoelaces again, staring up at me with those same eyes. Once again, she took a position of sprawling out on all fours and patiently waited for another ride across the floor. I obliged her as my mother began filling out the paperwork.
I had done it. She would be my first puppy. My first pet. My first best friend.
In 2009, Soffy passed away at the age of 16 from cancer. I’ll never forget the depth of sadness and pain I felt the night we put her down.
There were countless beautiful memories she had gifted to me and my family throughout her lifetime:
The times she would patiently rest her head on my foot, waiting for me to finish my homework, or complete my video game session after a long day at school.
How she would hide pieces of kibble and snacks in couch cushions and save them for later, but inevitably forget some until my parents found them and scolded both of us.
How she could sense earthquakes minutes before they happened and warn my entire family. I’ll never forget her very serious demeanor, barking at blank walls before frantically turning back to stare at us like we were crazy to not understand what was about to happen.
There are so many tales to recall that it is nearly impossible to choose just one as my favorite. But the one moment I will never forget was the first day we met, and how much my life had changed from just a calm and playful stare from a stranger.
From that day, Soffy helped me overcome more than just my fear of dogs. She also had eased my fear of animals, my fear of growing up, and my fear of responsibility.
She remains the sweetest and wisest dog I’ve ever met to this day, and she taught me some of life’s most important lessons. That the best way to overcome our fears is not through resigning ourselves to the harsh realities of life or fate, but to face your fears through love, caring, and responsibility. And maybe most importantly, that whenever you take care of another in any manner, you are also taking care of yourself.
I still don’t know why I asked my mother for a dog on that cold November day in 1993. All I know is that Soffy seemed to understand that I needed her as much as she needed me, and that she secretly possessed so many wise lessons that I still carry to this day.
Now that she is watching over me in doggy heaven, all I can say is thank you, Soffy. Thank you for helping me overcome so many of my fears and for making me a better person. You were the bestest friend I could have ever asked for.
This story was my entry for a writing challenge on Vocal Media.
Thank you so much for reading. I Agape-Love you all.
Until next time, God bless.